T.J. Lang limped toward the door in the tight and cramped visitor’s locker room inside the Georgia Dome. He had just reinjured his already broken foot, left the NFC Championship Game and watched as host Atlanta routed Green Bay, 44-21.
Two teammates patted Lang on the back. A team employee said goodbye. Lang even took a second to bid farewell to a couple media members.
The question now is whether this was Lang’s final goodbye?
Lang, a rock-solid starter since 2011 and a first-time Pro Bowler this season, becomes an unrestricted free agent next month. And if the Packers hope to keep their terrific offensive line operating at an extremely high level, re-signing their right guard appears mandatory.
Lang, 29, certainly hopes it works out that way.
“I’ve been here eight years, this is my home,” Lang said one day after the season ended. “I’ve raised my children here. I have a family. I just love my brothers here, some of my best friends on this team. I love the city. I just love putting on that helmet every weekend. It’s an honor to represent this team.
“So, yeah, it’s definitely something that, it’s not up to me, not my call, but I think everybody here knows that this is where my home is and this is where I want to stay. So, hopefully, things will work out in the next couple of months.”
Oakland’s Kelechi Osemele counted $13.2 million against the salary cap last year, more than any guard in football. Tampa Bay’s J.R. Sweezey ($9.5M), Cincinnati’s Kevin Zeitler ($8.07M), Chicago’s Kyle Long ($7.6M) and San Diego’s Orlando Franklin ($7.2M) rounded out the top five.
Lang’s cap hit of $6.181M ranked ninth among guards.
Lang signed a four-year, $20.8M contract extension in August 2012. It’s unlikely Lang can get a contract of that length again, but he certainly seems deserving of that annual dollar amount — and perhaps more — once again.
According to Pro Football Focus, Lang was the eighth-rated guard this season. He allowed a career-low 13 pressures and earned mega points for his toughness.
Lang suffered a broken foot against Tennessee on Nov. 13, an injury that sidelines most players for at least two months. With the Packers going nowhere fast at that time, many players — especially those in a contract year — might have called it a season.
Amazingly, though, Lang was back in less than a month on a night when Green Bay dismantled Seattle and its playoff push gained steam.
“That’s T.J.,” Packers center Corey Linsley said. “We’ve said it over and over again. He’s a tough SOB. He’s a hell of a player.”
“Hey, he’s a pro’s pro,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said of Lang. “Just kind of shows you the type of guy he is and how much he wants to be out there with his teammates and battle. He’s been doing that his whole career, being nicked up and going out there and battling. All the respect in the world for him.”
Lang had hip surgery two weeks ago and his foot should heal with proper rest. Lang certainly has a lengthy injury history, but the Packers would be hard pressed to find a player with his combination of brains and brawn.
“I’m just hoping (the NFC Championship Game) wasn’t the last time I get to put on that helmet,” Lang said. “It’s tough, man. Obviously, I’ll take some time, take a couple days, to rest up and recover and see what happens. I think everybody in this locker room knows that this is where I want to be.”
Green Bay’s other starting offensive linemen are all under contract. And if Lang re-signs, the group should be terrific again.
The offensive line allowed just 211/2 sacks. And on average, Aaron Rodgers had more time to throw that any quarterback.
Thanks in large part to the play of the offensive line, the Packers ranked seventh in passing offense (262.4), eighth in total offense (368.8) and a serviceable 20th in rushing offense (106.3).
Rodgers and the line also mastered the art of extending plays, as the front five gave him up to 9.0 seconds to throw on several plays late in the season.
“They do a good job of reaction,” Rodgers said of the line. “They kind of know on certain situations or stunts or protections, the opportunity might be higher in those situations. So you’ve seen at times anticipation of me rolling one way or another, them kind of hooking the guy and giving me some extra time.
“I appreciate those guys. The best thing that we do is we just communicate about all of the situations, so the things that happen out there, most of the time we’ve talked about reactions from them and kind of how rush patterns and stunts can affect my movement inside and outside the pocket.”
Left tackle David Bakhtiari finished as Green Bay’s highest rated lineman, ranking No. 3 among all tackles by PFF. Center Corey Linsley ranked 12th at his positional group, right tackle Bryan Bulaga ranked 16th among all tackles and left guard Lane Taylor was 42nd among all guards.
Bakhtiari, who signed a four-year, $49.7 million deal one day before Green Bay’s regular season opener in Jacksonville, had a brilliant season. Bakhtiari, 25, has added strength without sacrificing quickness and allowed a career-low 19 pressures this season.
Linsley missed the first seven games from a torn hamstring that he suffered back in May, but never seemed to miss a beat. Linsley might not look the part, but he gave up just 91/2 pressures and was a stout in the run game.
Bulaga, who signed a five-year, $33.75 million deal after the 2014 season, has always battled injuries. This year was no different, as he left four games early. But Bulaga started all 16 games and proved that he’s worth every penny of that contract when he’s healthy.
Taylor was thrust into the starting lineup when veteran Josh Sitton was released on Sept. 3. Taylor allowed a team-high 281/2 pressures, but more than held his own on a week-to-week basis and didn't look out of place on one of the NFL’s top pass blocking units.
In a perfect world, the group would come back intact next season. Of course, that largely depends on what happens next with Lang.
“I think everybody in this locker room knows that this is where I want to play,” Lang said. “It’s been eight years now. I don’t want to go anywhere. I’ve been saying that since the beginning. I love this team, I love Green Bay, I love everything about being a Packer. I love representing the city and the team. I want to be back. It’s not up to me. This is where I want to be.”
Packer Plus is published 40 times a year by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.